DAVAO CITY—From a one-bed spa he opened in Obrero village here in 2005, Sumakuel Butiong Jr. has managed to establish a company that has taken a foothold in Davao’s fast growing spa market.
With two branches in just a span of six years, he is now trying to franchise the Firm Spa, the company he founded, for P2 million.
Sum, as Butiong is known to friends and clients, still remembers how it started.
“We first opened with one bed in our room, servicing five to six clients a day,” he recalls. “But customers kept coming, we had to move to another place to accommodate them.”
After three to four months, they had to move again. “We transferred from being ‘spa sa canal’ to ‘spa sa laundry shop,’” he says, amused. “But I considered that a challenge.”
He was just 24 at that time and his business continued to grow.
In 2008 he opened a branch at Gutierrez Building in Bajada and in 2009, another branch at the K7 Strip Complex in Lanang.
In 2010, Firm Spa finally moved to a two-story building on Lacson Street here and now boasts of massage cubicles offering the comforts a spa massage parlor can offer: from a relaxing whole body massage to a soothing back rub, footspa and reflexology.
Apart from the massage cubicles, they also offer a separate room for body scrubs where customers can choose from their array of salts and aromatherapy oils, promising to wash away troubles in an hour or so.
When asked what inspired him, Sum merely smiled. He was a graduate of practical nursing, but instead of taking the nursing exams he decided to concentrate on the skills he already had and turned these into a business.
“Right from the start, it was OK,” he says. “Most of the clients came back. On the average, they used to come back twice a month.”
Word of mouth
Word got around. Most of his clients came back, bringing along friends in their succeeding visits. He knew how word of mouth could matter in his business, so he always made it a point to get out of his way to treat clients well. He says Firm Spa’s affordability, its good ambience and excellent services distinguished it from over a hundred competing spa businesses sprouting around the city.
“They (customers) always want to be treated as kings and queens here, so we make that our business,” he says.
His customers come across all ages, from different income groups but the bulk of them consisted of office workers letting off steam from the workplace, he says.
Each of the Firm Spa’s branches accommodates a low of 20 clients a day on lean days —which normally covers weekdays from Monday to Thursday —and a high of 50 clients a day on peak days, which covers Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
From only two therapists when they began, Firm Spa now employs 50 licensed massage therapists.
“They are paid only on commission basis, so they actually like it when more clients come on,” Sum says.
To attract more clients, they come up with different promotional activities, such as offering discounts and coming up with exciting service packages.
The customer, whose blog was prominently posted on the company’s website, once strayed into the parlor at 2 a.m. and tried the P250 Firm Combo package, an hour-long massage that combines Swedish, Thai, shiatsu and reflexology techniques.
The customer, who got inside an hour before closing time—the spa opens at 12 p.m. and closes at 3 a.m. each day—had described the place as “cold enough, appropriately dim, smelled nicely with relaxing oils and had a background music that wasn’t too loud.”
The mushrooming of spa and massage businesses in Davao, however, has brought along stiffer competition in the business, Sum admits.
A leading massage clinic here used to serve a peak of 80 clients a day but now the numbers have gone down as more players partake of their share in the market, he says.
“Spas have been mushrooming around Davao,” Sum says, “It’s an “in” thing in this era.” Spa has always been in Asia for quite a time, though, it was known in quite different names, he explains. “While we Filipinos have our hilots and ventosa; the Chinese have their acupressure and reflexology; the Japanese have shiatsu. We are just modernizing it, giving it a new name,” he says.
He says his customers got so inspired by his success they often ended up putting up a spa business of their own.
Firm Spa’s success story has attracted the attention of the nearby Handspring Institute and Massage School (Himas), which eventually made Firm Spa a good example to students wanting to venture into the spa and massage business.
“We are lucky we came in early that even if new entrants deluged the market, we have already established our name,” he says.
Since spa has been linked to tourism, the government has imposed rules to raise the standard of the industry in recent years, requiring entrepreneurs who venture into it to hire only licensed massage therapists. “It never used to be when we started,” Sum says. Some of his licensed massage therapists, at least three of them, have also left their jobs to work abroad because therapists are also in demand in Dubai and other Middle East countries.
But Davao’s rising spa business continues to ride upon the booming tourism industry and its growing economy.
As people become health conscious, they go to the spa parlors to relieve their stress.
Some of the company’s lucrative market includes foreign tourists, who have the habit of coming to the parlor every day for the duration of their stay.
“They still keep coming,” says Sum. He says as long as Davao’s tourism industry continues to move up, Davao’s spa business will continue to thrive.